Primitive humans, perhaps going all the way back to Paleolithic times, believed in spirits. A spirit – a soul, if you will – could animate a human being or animal, could cause disease or madness, could bring Mysterious Visions. And spirits were not confined to living creatures, but could inhabit inanimate objects as well: rocks, trees, bodies of water.
Belief in this sort of pagan, animistic religious concept still abounds. It is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, and even those of us who subscribe to more modern belief systems still give a knowing wink and nod to the Old Religion when we throw a pinch of spilled salt over our left shoulders or say “Bless you!” in response to someone’s sneeze.
I, myself, do not consider myself an animist, and yet I will confess that there is a certain indefinable power that certain objects seem to have…
…this being a long-winded preamble to a story about my relationship with the late Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, a relationship that his passing this week caused me to consider. It is a relationship that owes as much to animism as it does to Time, Place, and Circumstance.
A little over five years ago, as I prepared to celebrate my thirtieth college reunion, I received a note from a classmate inviting me to a special pre-reunion gathering in Washington, D.C. The classmate was Senator Bill Frist, who was, at the time, the Senate Majority Leader — a Political Big Man on Campus. We were invited to assemble at the Capitol, where we would be taken on a tour of the facilities as a preliminary to a short cocktail party.
I was skeptical at first. The Missus and I did not share Senator Frist’s political point of view. Should we go? Would our attendance imply endorsement of his conservative politics?
Her eminently practical answer: “When else are you going to get a personal tour of the Capitol of the United States — with the Senate Majority Leader, yet?” And so we sent in our RSVP and booked our flights.
On the appointed date, we arrived at the Capitol and passed our security screening, after which we were conducted to the Rotunda… past the signs that said “No Tourists Past This Point.” We were special.
A young page showed us around the Rotunda, the President’s Room, the Old Senate Chamber. We gathered in Frist’s office, the same office that formerly housed the entire House of Representatives in the early days of the Capitol. And then Bill showed up in order to take us on a personally conducted tour of the Senate chamber. We filed in and sat down, each of us selecting a nearby desk at which to park ourself.
The Senate is its own clubby little world. Unlike Representatives, who can avail themselves of modern Ars Electronica as they sit in the House chamber – cell phones, computers, Gameboys, you name it – Senators do their business the old-fashioned way. Pens, pads, and good old mahogany desks. None of that fancy-pants technology, thank you very much.
I noticed that the desk at which I sat bore a little brass nameplate that was inscribed “Edward M. Kennedy.” And it was right about then that Bill Frist explained the Senatorial custom by which the more senior members of the Senate sat closer to the front of the room. Junior Senators sat higher up, farther to the rear… of course, with Democrats on the left side of the aisle, Republicans on the right.
“You may wonder,” he continued, “why Senator Ted Kennedy sits all the way in the back of the chamber…” (at this, he indicated the very chair on which I was sitting) “…even though he is entitled by his seniority to sit down here in the front.
“It’s simple. Senator Kennedy sits at the same desk where his brother Jack sat. He has never moved.”
My eyes widened a little at that. I was not only sitting in Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s seat; I was sitting in Senator John F. Kennedy’s seat. Hoo, boy.
As I pondered the number of degrees of separation between my derrière and that of John F. Kennedy… and Jacqueline Kennedy… and Marilyn Monroe, for that matter, I could not help but wonder. Was that desk, somehow, imbued with the spirit of its former occupant? Was there some sort of primitive spiritual energy that had permeated that worn mahogany seat?
I suspect not. Although I have developed a strange affection for baked beans and codfish…